My first Scottish hike: A week through the countryside and the Highlands from Glasgow to Ben Nevis. A tiring but rewarding experience.
After the West Highland Way, I head out for my second week in Scotland for the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago of about ten islands in the West of Scotland. The Hebridean Way, a two-week wilder hiking trail, is waiting for me.
After two days off at the foot of Ben Nevis to rest from my hike on the West Highland Way I leave Fort William and the Highlands to join the Outer Hebrides or Western Hebrides. Archipelago of islands in the west of Scotland, with the Gaelic name of Na h-Eileanan Siar, they gather about twenty islands of different sizes. The largest and most populated (although the total population is around 27,000), are, from south to north: Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis. These are the islands that I will cross during my hike on the Hebridean Way, a 250km hiking trail from Vatersay Island to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.
Created two years ago, it is a recent path that I will follow. The environment dotted with lakes and peat bogs inland has led to the creation of a trail along the coast on small roads with some excursions in peat bogs and hills. I will how it turns out. After the inner mountains of Scotland, I expect large white sand beaches, turquoise waters and small isolated villages.
Day 1: Arrival on Barra
Early wake up to get to Fort William train station from where leaves at 7:44 am a train to Oban. Here I am, going back on the West Highland Way rediscovering the landscapes seen a few days ago but under a sky a little more radiant. The train rides on the uplands of the Highlands in the middle of nature. Nothing, except for a train station out of nowhere that reminds me a bit of the movie “Spirited Away”. I change train to Crianlarich, where I passed 7 days ago. Then I arrive in Oban around 11:30am, a small port city with pretty houses from where leaves the ferry to the Outer Hebrides. But I do not have time to visit. From there I embark at 1:30pm on the ferry to Castlebay on Barra Island, where is the start of the Hebridean Way.
About 5 hours of boat with a bit of sea-sickness and here I am arrived in a very small village on an island with heavenly atmosphere. But windy. What a difference ! The air is dry but really cold. The gusts of wind make me almost wobble. An hour of walking on the road to reach the other side of the island where I find the path that follows the Hebridean Way. The official start of the trek is on the island of Vatersay, a tiny island south of Barra but I do not have time to go there. I planned to bivouac but the place considered for camping is very windy. It is already 9pm and I hesitate a little. I decide to go to the campsite, 1km away hoping it will be a little more protected. While I am almost arrived, a very nice old gentleman stops to propose to take me by car. I tell him that I am almost at my destination, he insists and I accept. It will probably be my shortest hitchhiking of the trip: only a few meters!
The campsite is even more windy than the bivouac plan but I do not have the strength to go back. It is already 9:30pm and I settle for the night. Nobody to cash me. A tiny building serves as a block for showers / toilet / kitchen. But the place contains a treasure: The best showers I’ve ever seen and wifi whose connection wobbles a bit. It’s more than I expected. The tent crashing a little under the wind, I watch a beautiful sunset and close my eyes for my first night on the Hebrides.
Day 2: A crossing a little dreary
I wake up under a nice sun that quickly decamped. A cloudy mass arrives, pushed by the wind and settles over Barra for the whole day. Everything is gray. Not even a few rays of sun to sneak up. Donald, the manager of the campsite comes to see me as I pack up my tent to collect his due. It’s £10 a night. £10 for a windy location but with the best showers I’ve seen in Scotland since I arrived. Well, it’s like that.
I leave the campsite and here I am on the Hebridean Way. Two weeks to cross the Outer Hebrides. The path follows the small road through the borough of Borve. Then goes up to the surrounding hills. The trail disappears to make way for a “non-existent trail” left by some walkers before me. Some posts marked “Hebridean Way” positioned every 200m indicate the direction. Nobody. Except some sheep. One female and two small ones. They decamp at my passage. The moor is boggy and I my shoes are getting wet.
I go up to Beinn Bhirisig, then go down to Loch an Duin before going back to Beinn Eireabhal. The view of the Barra Strait are superb with a hundred small islands and white sand beaches. A small plane lands on the sand spit serving as an airport. Despite the gray weather and the strong wind, the landscape is impressive. I join, in a hurry, the ferry to the tiny terminal of Ardmhor to cross to reach the small island of Eriskay. The sky is finally revealing rays of light followed by blue sky. Under a slightly better sky, I cross Eriskay, enjoying a visit to the local store to buy my evening meal. On a bench watching the incoming sun, I appreciate the calm of the place and the feeling of calm that emerges from it.
The causeway connecting Eriskay to South Uist, is already looming and I follow the road to reach my third island of the day. Three kilometers on the causeway followed by three others to join Kilbridge camping, all on the road. It is long and painful but the landscape is beautiful. The turquoise sea, the white sand, the dunes, some huts and mountains in the background. Under a late sunny afternoon, I set myself up at the campsite.
Day 3: Solitude in the Machair
Not a cloud in the sky this morning, it will be a nice day. It’s going to be hot. Breakfast eggs on toast at Kilbridge Café and here I am. About twenty kilometers along the coast of South Uist to reach the peninsula of Loch Aid a Mhuile. On one side the sea and on the other the meadows carpeted with daisies and golden flowers. The landscape seems to be empty. There is nobody. No noise. In fact it is not true, there is the sound of the sea, the wind whistling in my ears, the twittering of the hundreds of seabirds that are alarmed at my passage. But not a sound of civilization. It’s calm, it’s empty, it’s almost sad. Carcasses of abandoned cars lie in the fields. Witnesses of an island with difficult prosperity? The inhabitants seem to abandon them there, among the flowers, so that they fall slowly into pieces.
The landscape scrolls: the sea, the dunes, the flowers and the mountains in the distance. Always the same. It could be meditative. If only my mind stopped wandering. Just enjoy walking, one step after another, looking at the landscape.
The bed of flowers dazzles me with every step. It’s green, white and yellow. With a lot of variations. I follow the trace on what remains of the Machair Way. In Gaelic, “Machair” means “low and fertile grasslands”. This environment is only found on the west coast of Scotland and Ireland.
A large golf course appears in the dunes near Askernish. I’m hot then I’m cold because of the stronger wind. I do not know what I want. I take a short break in the dunes contemplating the sea and swallowing a sandwich bought this morning which falls into pieces. I feel a little strange. Half happy, half sad. Is it due to the monotony of the landscape? The weight of the bag, a little too heavy that hurts my shoulders and leaves me with blisters? By the fact that I do not meet anyone? Yet that’s what I wanted. A wilder and less touristic trek than the West Highland Way. My desires have been heard and here I am served. But I feel a little lonely. Despite the beauty of the flowers and birds singing, something seems empty.
I go to the Golf Course Clubhouse to replenish my water for tonight’s bivouac. And I continue through the dunes, thoughts in my head. The wind is blowing in my ears and the sun is slowly turning in the sky.
At Loch Aid a Mhuile, no place to camp and here I am, quite tired turning back one kilometer to return behind other dunes, these more welcoming. I put my tent in the middle of the daisies and golden flowers and finally lay down, my head filled with question marks and feet painful. In the middle of the flowers and in the calm of the evening, appreciating the sun which descends and the colors blushing, I revise my route for the continuation, trying to shorten the stages to stay around 16km per day. The end of the day is beautiful, the sun glowing on the horizon and I fall asleep a little comforted.
Day 4: Solitude, peat bogs and Machair
I wake up, the sun already high in the sky. Same blue sky without clouds. Same bed of daisies. Same absolute calm.
Here I go again along the coast for about ten kilometers. At Caisteal Ormacleit, a castle in ruins, I take a short break. Just sitting that a strange man a little ragged comes to talk to me. In the space of a few minutes, Roddy tells me about his life, his parents and his sister who died recently, the time when he took care of 400 sheep, the crops being harvested now in September rather than July and the castle being destroyed by fire in 1715. But a big wedding is being prepared a little further down the coast, the tents are being installed and he wants to take a look. All this agitation seems to make him happy. I feel that is the mark of a man deeply alone. We separate on a handshake and I continue my way.
At Howmore, I stop for lunch in the gardens of the tiny Gatliff Youth Hostel. Nobody but the place is open allowing me to refuel in water. My feet hurt and it’s hot. It is hot and the wind is strong. A demonic combination that flattens me quickly. The trail finally leaves the coast and sinks among the many lakes and peat bogs at the foot of the hills. The same habitual thoughts are circling at the edge of my consciousness: why do I push myself to do that? Does the pleasure of hiking mean carrying a heavy bag and walking the trail in its entirety despite the difficulty? Or should the pleasure of the hike be more important? Am I forgetting that I am “on vacation” and that pleasure and simplicity should guide my steps? Do I really like hiking or is it an illusion that I push myself to do?
Back on a small road and motivating me for the last three kilometers to go, a motorhome stops and offers me a lift. I accept with happiness. The lady drops me a few minutes further at the foot of Our Lady of the Isles, a statue of 9m at the effigy of the Madonna and son placed there in the middle of nowhere.
A few meters higher on a small hill is a telecommunication relay. I am looking for a place to camp but the ground is sloping and the wind is still blowing hard. I continue a little bit and end up in a small roadside quarry. It’s less good than last night but there is not much choice.
Day 5: Through South Uist
Wake up under the clouds. It’s gray and wet. I pack up my barda fighting with a hundred spiders who have elected home in the corners of my roof tent. This morning I continue through the plain full of lakes and peat bogs. The path disappears and navigates through the peat bogs following the post marks. At every step, the earth seems to want to swallow my shoes. Water is queen here and you have to be careful where to put your feet.
The sun appears a little through the clouds and I appreciate the color variations. The progression is not easy, and it is with relief that I reach the three wind turbines of the Lochcarnan Community Wind Farm where I find a path of stones. By far the wind turbines always seems to me like fragile and light windmills. Up close, they evoke monsters of technological power. I overtake them listening to the characteristic noise of pale cutting through the wind.
A flock of horseflies decide to eat my skin and I do not linger. At least that has the gift of distracting me a little from the monotony of the way across the plain. The bag is a little lighter (much less water now) but I claud a little because of my blisters. Some places in the bog seem to have been returned by man’s hand. Sods of peat are laid in a particular arrangement and I wonder what it can be. It is actually peat cut and dried in the sun so that it can then be used as fuel for fire. The inhabitants of the Hebrides have been using peat for a long time to fuel their fires. Although less powerful than wood, peat emits a pleasant odor while consuming itself.
A pretty traditional thatched cottage appears on the edge of a loch but it is low tide and the water is gone. Only the mud and masses of brown algae remain. And three sheep perched on rocks nibbling the last remnants of green grasses.
I cross the causeway linking South Uist to Benbecula and here I am on a new island. Lunch break and refreshments at the local supermarket. And I take the bus for the last 3km separating me from the campsite. After three days and two nights “in the heart of nature”, I happily welcome a hot shower and a quiet end of afternoon.
Day 6: Storm on Ruabhal
Three o’clock in the morning. A wind to make cows fly wakes me up. The announced storm has finally arrived. Wind and rain have decided to crash hard on the shore. My tent is tossed in all directions and even if I do not doubt (not too much) of its resistance, I can not close my eyes. I retreat into the showers taking all my stuff with me and quickly folding my tent. Not really comfortable place to sleep but at least I’m safe. I doze for the rest of the night while waiting for the sunrise.
When I emerge from my half-torpor, it is stormy and the wind has strengthened. The weather forecast does not look good for the day or the next night and I decide to review my plans. I have to find an inn or a hotel so I can sleep in a sheltered place and especially sleep. Sleep well because it’s been three nights that I do not sleep very well. About 6km further is the small hamlet of Baile Nan Cailleach, where there is a youth hostel. This will be my destination for the day.
The path runs along the shore and I’m bumped on all sides by the wind and the rain. Around 10:30am here I arrive at the hostel where I put down my big bag and decide to continue the way to climb to Ruabhal. Benbecula Island is as flat as a coin. If not for the small hill of Ruabhal, 124 meters high placed almost in the center of the island. The Hebridean Way climbs its summit to enjoy the views of the surroundings and then descends on the other side before finding the road and reaching the island of North Uist. Given the weather, I’m just going to climb up and come back to the hostel.
The rain has calmed down a bit and I’m going on the road. 7km in a straight line to reach Ruabhal. The hill seems to take an eternity to get closer. At the top, gusts of 40km / h make me wobble. I distinguish through the cloud cover and the squalls of rain, the infinity of small lakes that make up the island. An impatient cloud suddenly pours me over and I decide to go down. But the rain disappears as quickly as it arrived and the landscape is revealed then a little more. I can see in the distance the hills of North Uist in the clouds.
7km long and monotonous in the other direction and here I am back to the inn quite tired. Four cyclists have arrived in the meantime and we spend the evening chatting quietly. Today, walking in the rain, wavering under the gusts of wind, the questions that have occupied my mind for several weeks have come back in force. Why do I walk? And why walk in difficult conditions? The landscape is dreary, the atmosphere is sad, the weight of the bag hurts my shoulders, I’m tired, and I do not enjoy walking. So why continue? Is it precisely when the conditions are difficult, when the spirit pushes to give up that it is necessary to continue? And then how to appreciate the hike when you do not distinguish much of the landscape? Is one of the big lessons to be learned is that you have to let go of your expectations and calmly accept what you are getting, even if it does not suit us?
Day 7: North Uist and ruins of the past
Today the wind is still there but the sun is back. It’s already that. On the islands the wind is permanent. Accept it. I take two minibuses to reach Carinish where the trail continues. The ruins of the Trinity Temple (Teampull na Trionaid) stand next to the road. This is all that remains of an important monastery and learning place dating from the mid-12th century. The lands around the monastery saw the Battle of Carinish in 1601 dye the ground in red, earning the nickname of “Feith na Fala” (ditch of blood) in a battle between clans. Today only a few tourists and sheep are walking around the site.
The path sinks into the plain. In the distance I can see a small silhouette wearing a backpack. Someone else is doing the Hebridean Way. This is the first time I see another hiker on the way. The trail zigzags across the plain to the east coast of North Uist. I catch up with the silhouette that stopped for a meal break. Julie eats nuts, raisins and a few slices of hams. She is doing the Hebridean Way and seems happy to meet another hiker. I pass an old pier where I stop for lunch. The sea is low and I have lunch sitting against the walls of the pier, partly protected from the wind.
The path continues through the plain and climbs to Beinn Langais where an old circle of stones almost disappearing under the ferns and an old half-ruined burial chamber await me. These are the witnesses of an ancient colonization of the Hebrides Islands. 8km along the road to reach Lochmaddy, a small beachside bled but the rain suddenly appears and it is soaked that I hitchhike along the road hoping someone will take me. A good twenty minutes later, a car finally stops and two old local guys take me with them. Learning that I intend to camp overnight next to Lochmaddy, they promise to find me a room in one of the B&B in the village. I do not really want it because it is expensive but they are determined at all costs. Fortunately for me, the B&B in the village are full and I escape by thanking my drivers gently.
An hour later, while it is still raining, I am still turning in the village to find a place to camp. Impossible. No flat place and too much wind. Damn. What to do? I give up and decide to go to the Gatliff Youth Hostel in Berneray about twenty kilometers away. I was supposed to arrive on Berneray only tomorrow night but it will be for tonight. The last bus of the day takes me while the rain finally decides to stop. In the light of the late evening, I distinguish the plain and the hills where the path connecting Lochmaddy to Berneray passes. I decide that tomorrow, I will leave my big bag in Berneray and then take a bus to return to Lochmaddy to follow the trail back.
The Gatliff Youth Hostel is the same as the one in Howmore, in a traditional old cottage, at the end of the village of Berneray just by the sea. I meet Marie, a French cyclist in her forties and we spend the evening talking. I am very happy to have changed my plans.
Day 8: A moment of wonder at the top of Beinn Mhor
Gray sky again, but clearings are supposed to happen. Marie reachess the ferry terminal connecting Berneray to Harris and I take the bus back to Lochmaddy. Yesterday, the mind busy finding a place to camp I forgot my hiking stick at the small village shop. I hope it will be there again. Twenty minutes later the bus drops me off and I recover with relief my stick that seems to wait for me.
I leave in the other direction to attack the hike. The sky has slightly cleared, it seems that the day will be beautiful. At least according to Scottish standards: so without heavy rain. I bypass Blathaisbhal, walking a little randomly across the plain, the signposts having disappeared and cross the moor to reach the summit of Beinn Mhor. The crossing of the bog is long, the path branching permanently. Ona straight line, there are only two kilometers, I think. On the ground I need almost 5! I still reach the top and for the first time since 2-3 days contemplates the surroundings from higher. With the few rays of sun, the view of the beaches, the Machair, the lakes and the island of Berneray is splendid. I have lunch at the top but the strong wind does not allows me to stop for very long.
Back in the plain, I go see the ruins of Dun An Sticer. First used as a maisonette almost 2500 years earlier, the construction in the middle of the lake was then transformed into a fort in the 16th century when Hugh MacDonald, who plotted to assassinate his cousin was locked up inside before being sent to a prison on the Isle of Skye.
Back on the road, I still have some 8km to join the Youth Hostel and I try to hitchhike. Two seconds later, the first car stops. Lucky me! A local man takes me and I seat in the middle of his painting gear. Back on Berneray. I change bunkhouse having booked a few days earlier for the John’s bunkhouse, another dormitory located closer to the ferry terminal. The house is new and beautiful but the arrival of a family with a toddler makes the evening less pleasant than last night.
I go to the tiny coffee shop on the island to buy some food. The cashier and a client discuss. The strange language catches my ears. They speak Gaelic. It’s been several times that I hear it by bridles. Mostly spoken in the Highlands and Hebrides, Gaelic is a Celtic language unlike any other. Listening to the ladies rolling the “r” and accentuate the “ch”, I find it particularly pleasant to listen.
Day 9: Go around Berneray and arrival on Harris
Today is a quiet day for me. I decided to take a break from the trail and enjoy the morning walking around Berneray before taking the ferry to Harris in the afternoon. I leave my big bag at the bunkhouse and go through the Machair around the island. I walk along the wide beach on the west coast and climb to the top of the small hill of the island. In the distance among the clouds I distinguish the mountains of Harris. Around 2pm, I go to the ferry terminal finding Julie again met a few days earlier. She is also crossing.
The sky is cloudy and we arrive at Leverburgh in the rain. My first impressions of Harris remind me of the Highlands. Must say that the hills here look more like mountains. Julie booked the same bunkhouse as me: Am Bothan Bunkhouse and here we are in the same room drying our things. Rapid visit to the small supermarket that surprisingly sells organic and vegan products and quiet evening talking with two Scots having gone to St Kilda during the day. From Leverburgh it is possible to visit this small island more to the west of Scotland and a UNESCO World Heritage but the price and the difficult crossing by boat discourages me a little.
Day 10: Rain and fog in Leverburgh
Rest day in Leverburgh, the weather is really bad today. It rains without interruptions all day long. The landscape is sad and dismal. I take this opportunity to rest, refill and advance on my projects. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain in the morning then to calm down in the afternoon. I hope that it will be the case, not wanting to start the second part of my trip on the Hebridean Way in the rain. But the Scottish weather is difficult and I must go with it. I will see tomorrow.
My first part on the Hebridean Way was all in contrasts. Mix of beautiful and bad weather and beautiful to very monotonous passages. I’m a little disappointed but telling myself at the same time that it was stupid to have imagined heavenly landscapes. It remains Scotland after all. And in Scotland it rains, the vast majority of the time. So inevitably with the rain the places lose their superb.
This first part on the “small islands” of the Hebrides was a little monotonous, the way spending a lot of time through the Machair (beautiful but repetitive) and on the roads (easy but hard for the feet). The landscape is very beautiful but the difficulty of the ground (few existing paths, peat bogs and lakes everywhere, low-frequented hills in the East) led to the creation of a path on the west coast along many paths farm, old roads, areas across bogs and sections on the main road making the hike a bit monotonous and not the most enjoyable.
Again, I wonder a lot about what hiking means to me. The Hebrides are mostly cycled and after meeting and chatting with many cyclists, I wonder if I should have gone on a bike ride. But even if the trip seems less demanding on a bike, cyclists are also faced with rain and wind.
Tomorrow, Friday, July 5th, I attack the second part of the journey through Harris and Lewis, the two big islands of the Hebrides. Harris is more mountainous and Lewis offers a lot of historical attractions. I hope the weather will not be too bad.
My first Scottish hike: A week through the countryside and the Highlands from Glasgow to Ben Nevis. A tiring but rewarding experience.
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